writing messI’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but I never thought I had that kind of creativity in me. I’d never been able to sustain writing in a journal for longer than a few weeks at a time, let alone follow a fictional idea through to the end. So I resigned myself to telling books I thought were marginal that I could have done them justice. I could have written them better, which is what I think most aspiring-writers-who-don’t-actively-pick-up-a-pen do.

Ten years ago, something changed. I saw an ad in a magazine for a course in writing children’s literature and decided to try that. It didn’t go very well for me, but it did allow me a format to process my father’s illness and death. Then I stumbled upon a writer’s conference in Vancouver, Canada. I know now that there are several writer’s conferences and writer’s groups much closer to home, but this one had my favorite contemporary writer as the key note speaker. And it was within driving distance. And I’d never been to Canada.

So I asked for the time off from work and drove to Canada. I met my favorite writer. I’m pretty sure she thought I was some type of annoying insect buzzing around trying to help with things. There’s a good chance she was right about that. I talked to a few of people sitting near me during meals and one or two in various lectures. The problem was that every person I talked to asked what I was working on. I was working on something, one of the projects I’m still working on, but I found it hard to describe and would start telling them the story of my book. I learned in a seminar on the last day that you need to have an elevator pitch – a short description, one sentence or so, in case you ever find yourself in an elevator with an editor or agent. I’m pretty sure that’s what I was supposed to tell the various conference goers, but I didn’t have one. Still don’t, actually. Although I have a blog and a business card now, so I could give them that.

One of the women I gave my anti-elevator pitch to went on to become the conference sidekick and subsequent close friend of my favorite author. I hate her with a blinding passion.

The following year, we acquired Zoo Keeper and I left my full-time job. Once I got past the first eight months or so, I started writing again. Then the fan group of my favorite writer decided to have a conference structured around her and those members of the group who had also become published authors. I signed up immediately and, this time, I requested a roommate. That would force me to talk to someone, I reasoned. It actually gave me a lovely new friend (hi Jen!) and lots of information about becoming a better writer.

Hanging out with my roomy during the more social times allowed me to open up a little and meet other people. Many I’m still Facebook friends with and several of us decided to start an online writer’s group. We were pretty active for about two years and then tapered off a little with kids and other commitments, but we’re still in touch and often talk about restarting the critiquing. I love you, P&Cs!

I garnered a treasure trove of information and friends from that conference. I learned about National Novel Writing Month from my roommate. Well, not so much learned as was talked into participating; a push I very much needed. I learned that if I don’t think of myself as a writer, no one else will either. I learned you should finish the first draft before you start editing.

And therein lies the main issue of my writing career. I can’t seem to finish a first draft of a novel. Technically I finished one during NaNo in 2010, but it’s really more mess than a rough draft of anything. I had decided to do an homage to one of my favorite movies and combine it with an idea I had driving over the bridge in a heat wave. I ended up with some scenes that follow the movie much too closely, some where you can actually hear me trying to un-peel my fingers from their grip on the plot of the movie, and some that are totally me but don’t fit in with the rest at all.

I’ve learned to call myself a real writer through writing this blog. It’s helped me hone my voice and my skill set. But it’s not the kind of writing I mean when I say I want to be a writer. I want to be a novelist. I want to create my own characters and and give them life so they will show readers the story I want to tell. And I want it to be good. At this point, I don’t even care if I ever sell a novel, I just want to finish a good one and have someone enjoy reading it.

I thought about writing a lot, but I never thought of it in relation to autism until I was diagnosed. When the therapist said she agreed that I’m autistic, I was thrilled because it put so many things in perspective for me, but a realization soon brought fear along to sit with the joy.

I began to wonder if autism was the reason I couldn’t finish a novel. Worse, I feared that there was nothing I could do about it. They say the one thing you need to do to become a writer is to write, then write some more, and more, etc. I’ve been doing that for ten years and always end up beating my head against the wall because I can’t finish the project. I can do a scene, especially if I know where I want it to go. But when I try to look at the overall picture, my brain shorts out. It’s like I can’t hold it all in there. I can see some of the details, but I can’t clear the fog fast enough to get a look at the whole thing.

I’ve tried classes about different ways to structure a novel, like three act or the hero’s journey, but I can’t generalize them to my problem. I’ve tried reading books on how to finish. I’ve tried post-it notes and index cards to help me look at the whole. I’ve tried whiteboards and poster board collages. I just end up with stacks of index cards and a poster board that sits in my bedroom taunting me about my inadequacy.

I began to fear that I’ll never be the writer I want to be. That I just don’t have it in me and all the practice in the world won’t overcome my inadequacy.

Then I took the boys to a neuropsychologist for an educational evaluation and ended up with a possible explanation for my inability to finish a novel.

When the neuropsychologist was talking to us about the results, he mentioned a book called Smart but Scattered. It’s about executive functioning. I’ve owned the book for several years, but had never really read it. I also didn’t have a clear idea of what executive functioning meant. I knew some of the issues deficits in executive functioning can cause and goals to overcome them in school, but I wouldn’t have been able to describe an executive function. That was okay for communicating in the autism community because, in my experience, you just mention executive functioning and everybody goes, “Oh, okay,” and the conversation goes on. Maybe that means everybody else knows all about it, but I didn’t and I was determined at this point to find out.

Near as I can tell, the exact list of executive functions varies from source to source and are some are referred to by different names, but they all have the same general idea. I’ve been working from the list in Smart but Scattered (Peg Dawson, EdD and Richard Guare, PhD), so I’ll direct you to their website for a definition of executive functioning skills.

From my answers on the questionnaire for parents in Smart but Scattered, it seems like my weakest areas of executive functioning are task initiation, organization, goal-directed persistence, and metacognition.

This gave me insight into why people make comments on how organized I am when I’m actually not organized at all. If you’ve ever seen an office of mine or looked inside my house, you’ll see that I’m telling the truth. As a kid, when I was supposed to clean my room, I’d get overwhelmed by the size of the project and, not having any idea how to organize it, shove it all in the closet or under the bed. Drove my mother insane. But I always maintained that I knew where stuff was and I did. Even now, unless someone’s moved it, I know which stack of papers contains whatever document I’m looking for. Because I compensate for my lack of organizational skills with my memory.

We have a pretty tight schedule of therapies and I get a lot of comments about how organized I must be to be able to get the right kid to the right place at the right time. I have a web-based scheduling/calendar program and a wall calendar in our kitchen. I try to write things on both, but the truth is I usually only need to write it once to remember, especially if it’s a recurring appointment. That’s not organization; it’s memory.

I used to easily remember birthdays and phone numbers: can still recite several of them for friends from junior high. But these days we press one button to call friends, so I don’t know anyone’s number anymore. Okay, that doesn’t really prove my point, but it is true.

As a junior in college, I took a class called modern algebra. The letters stopped standing for numbers and there were no formulas or equations, just theoretical proofs. I didn’t understand a thing in that class, which is an organizational thing because I couldn’t figure out how to put things together to get me from point A to point B (theoretically, there were no points either). It was too overwhelming. But I knew that two questions of each four question test would come from the book, so I memorized the proofs from the book. They were roughly five pages each. That’s how I passed the class.

Writing fairy dustThose examples give me hope because, if I can identify what’s stopping me from finishing a novel, maybe I can find a work-around for that, too. Kind of like writing fairy dust only with neuroscience.

But I need some help to identify the areas where I need…help. I asked for a referral to a neuropsychologist who works with adults and made an appointment. The evaluations took six hours with a break for lunch in the middle. Grueling, but kind of fun.

As I was leaving, I asked the neuropsychologist if I’m autistic. The question came out because I was mentally exhausted and it was the surface fear I had been thinking about. I didn’t want to find out at this point that I’m not really autistic. She said something about me certainly identifying myself that way. Unfortunately, I took that to mean she thought I’d been skewing my answers to influence the outcome, which is not what she was saying at all. She said some more stuff about the label not being the important thing.

I emailed her a day or so later to apologize for putting her on the spot, because I know she has to review the tests before answering a question like that, and to clarify that it wasn’t the real question I was asking anyway. I was trying to ask if my issues were real. For instance, was there a neurological reason for my lack of task initiation skills or was I just lazy as my father had always said?

She sent back a beautiful response that I will read time and again. In part, she said that behavior is based in the brain and personality is a form of behavior. So, to a neuropsychologist, there’s no difference between a brain-based task initiation issue and a personality aspect of being lazy except that lazy sounds judgmental and isn’t productive. It doesn’t help you figure out what’s keeping you from completing tasks and find a way to work around the roadblock.

But the best thing she said was that the things I am describing are definitely real. I can’t wait to meet with her to discuss my results! That happens next week, though I’m sure a written report will take much longer. When I’m ready, I’ll share some of it here.